The US Navy needs to remove thousands of litres of fuel from a minesweeper stuck on World Heritage-listed coral in the Philippines and says the ship is too badly damaged to be towed away.
The 68-metre USS Guardian, which became embedded in the Tubbataha Reef a week ago, will have to be lifted onto another ship or barge, a process that might take another fortnight, Rear Admiral Thomas Carney said on Thursday.
He said it was too badly damaged to tow away. "It's got hull penetrations in several places, and there's a significant amount of water inside the ship."
He said the Guardian had listed after being battered by huge waves, and the most pressing issue was to remove 57,000 litres of fuel.
"The first priority is to get the fuel out of the ship as soon as possible," Carney told reporters.
Carney described the salvage operation as "a very deliberate, complicated process" involving at least two more US Navy vessels.
While Carney said it was too early to determine how much damage the Guardian had caused, the Philippine government said about 1000 square metres of coral had been damaged.
This equates out to roughly one per cent of Tubbataha, a UNESCO World Heritage site in a remote part of the Sulu Sea famous for its rich marine life and coral.
The incident has stoked anger in the Philippines, with the US Navy yet to explain why it was sailing through a protected marine sanctuary en route to Indonesia.
The head of the agency supervising the sanctuary said this week that the captain of the ship ignored warnings that it was nearing the reef. The agency recommended the US Navy be fined for "unauthorised entry" into the area.
Carney declined to explain why the Guardian was sailing in the area, saying that was still the subject of investigation. He repeated a US Navy apology made last weekend.
"We express our deepest regret that we are in this situation, and we are committed to removing the ship from the reef as soon as possible," he said.